Advent is not for the faint of heart. Advent marks the period before Christmas when we wait for Jesus’ arrival as a baby on Christmas day – and a time when we remember that we are still waiting for Jesus to arrive.
Waiting for God isn’t easy. When Jesus asked the disciples to wait while he prayed, they fell asleep because Jesus’ prayers were a little too long-winded for them (Matthew 26:36-46). When Ezekiel became a prophet and needed to tell the people about an upcoming siege against Jerusalem, God made him lie on his side without moving for 430 days while he waited for the people to be convinced of God’s seriousness. And (as many Christians see it) when God promised Isaiah that “a shoot [would] come out of the stump of Jesse” and Israel would be restored, they had to wait hundreds of years for Jesus to come along.
My wife grew up near in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, where a Protestant (Pietist) “cloister” was established in 1732. At the cloister, celibate men and women practiced a disciplined monastic lifestyle that most famously included sleeping on a wooden board about a foot and a half wide using a wooden block as a pillow. (You can still buy a “pillow” in the gift shop!) Less famously, their practice included the difficult practice of waking up in the middle of the night to watch for the coming of Christ. I’m not particularly impressed by the practice itself (is Christ really going to come between midnight and 2:00 a.m.?), but I am impressed by the discipline and the level of anticipation. For the community of the Ephrata Cloister, Christ was threatening to break into the world again at any moment.
The technical term for this, as I learned it, is “being prepared.” That’s the motto I purported to follow during my time in the Scouting movement. When we went on a scout campout, we had to be prepared for everything. Sometimes, that meant having enough food, having extra clothes in case you fell in a creek, making sure your survival kit was in good order, knowing how to work a compass, having a first aid kit and so on.
For backpacking trips, things got slightly more intense. You needed good quality, waterproof, broken-in hiking boots; a backpack with a light frame and good support; good hiking socks and moleskin for blisters; trash bags so that you didn’t leave anything behind on the trail; a lightweight tent… and the list goes on. You also needed knowledge: You’d have to know how much your gear weighed (down to the gram), how to do basic first aid, how to survive in the woods, how to avoid getting lost and what to do when you got lost anyway.
Needless to say, I didn’t go backpacking very often. But I did look forward to one particular campout that was much easier to prepare for. No survival gear, no heavy-duty camping equipment, no need for contingency plans. This was because every year, in the middle of January when the weather was at its coldest, we would have a special campout – in a hotel.
It doesn’t take much effort or motivation to camp out in a hotel. But it often takes months of preparation (not to mention sheer force of will) to get ready for a 20-mile backpacking trip.
As a church, I believe we are telling ourselves that preparing for Jesus to come is like preparing for a campout in a hotel.
We often think that being prepared for Jesus just means putting a neat little slogan on our church sign, or successfully forming event and worship committees, or hosting a potluck dinner, or making sure all of the kids have a part in the Christmas play. It might even mean participating in things like Angel Tree or ringing bells for the Salvation Army. But if we’re honest, we don’t do those things because we’re excited that Jesus might arrive in our churches. We do those things because they’re what we always did, because they’re nice things to do and because they fit in with our mission and vision statements.
But what if we were preparing for a more difficult task? What if we recognized that Jesus’ potential arrival was about more than telling the story with pageants and plays? What if Jesus’ potential arrival drove us to work desperately to help people without enough money, or enough food, or access to clean water? What if our Advent preparations made us do whatever it takes to bring justice to people in our communities? What if we were so passionate for the mission Jesus sent us on that our churches had to fend off accusations of being cults?
As it is, few churches look like this. We are carrying on with business as usual. But don’t be fooled – the stakes are incredibly high, especially for Presbyterian churches. When backpackers prepare for going on long treks, they prepare well because their lives depend on it. People’s lives also depend on our preparations for Jesus’ arrival.
The PC(USA) is one of the few churches in our entire world where LGBT people can find acceptance. We are one of the few churches where people can come and worship Jesus as themselves without putting on a righteous façade. We are one of the few churches that take climate change and environmentalism seriously. We are one of the few churches that take disaster relief seriously and dig in for the long term. We are one of the few churches that take seriously the damage done by excluding women from church leadership. We are one of the few churches that take biblical scholarship seriously and allow people to ask deep questions about faith. If we cease our preparations, multitudes of people will be disenfranchised, oppressed, violated, excluded from the church – even left for dead.
Advent is not about getting ready for a Christmas play. Advent is a time for us to recognize how absolutely critical it is for us to be prepared for Jesus’ arrival. Advent is a time to remember that the peace and justice and love of God is threatening to break into our world at any time, and to remember that we Christians need to help turn that hope into a reality – and to do it sooner rather than later. People are waiting.
ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.